Monday 16 March 2020 12:03 pm

Blithe Spirit at Duke of York's Theatre review: Jennifer Saunders shines in this playful ghost story

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit is a merry supernatural farce, which the old boy hurriedly knocked off as a distraction from the beastly inconvenience of the Blitz.

It seems appropriate that it should manifest again now, as the country stockpiles toilet paper and prepares to baton down the hatches, not against the menace of the Luftwaffe, but Covid-19.

Novelist Charles Condomine, his second wife Ruth, and their acquaintances Dr and Mrs Bradman are sophisticated modern sorts, who have no time for the paranormal. Hoping to gather material for a new book, Charles invites local medium Madame Arcati to his country pile, where he and the others intend to laugh at her efforts to conduct a séance.

Things go amusingly awry, however, when the spiritualist inadvertently summons the ghost of Charles’ mischievous first wife, Elvira, who only he can see and hear.

Blithe Spirit’s original West End run, beginning in 1941, set a new record for most performances of a non-musical, but this production – directed by Richard Eyre – has transferred from Bath for a strictly limited season.

Read more: Love, Love, Love at Lyric Hammersmith review: A witty, acerbic rumination on the generation gap

It is bankable as ever, and features all the things expected from a Coward play, but judging by the audience’s reaction, the main draw is Absolutely Fabulous star Jennifer Saunders, whose high-waisted, bobby-socked performance as Madam Arcati is one of well-judged excess.

A strong ensemble cast carries off the waspish yet playful dialogue, delivering it with the clipped tones of Mr Cholmondley-Warner.

There is a memorable performance from Emma Naomi, as the diaphanous Elvira, and Rose Wardlaw imbues Edith, the Condomine’s endearingly simple maid-servant, with boisterous comic energy.

The subtle deployment of stage magic staves off complacency, while the set – designed by Anthony Ward – provides solidity and groundedness, which is eventually upended to surprising effect.

This is a good, fun production, which will no doubt whet appetites for Judi Dench’s cinematic remake, due for release in May.